If the world is learning English, why on earth should the British learn the world's languages?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Dec 22 13:45:26 UTC 2006

>>From the Economist via

If the world is learning English, why on earth should the British learn
the world's languages?

THE trouble with Johnny Foreigner, as the British have long remarked, is
that he can't understand you. But the trouble with the British is that
they can't learn his language: most of them simply cannot get the hang of
all those conjugations and gerundives and adjectives that have to agree
with nouns. Now, as luck would have it, the whole world seems to be
learning English. Problem solved. Moreover, the British government seems
to agree. Two years ago it decided to drop the requirement that all
British 14-16-year-olds should study at least one foreign language. Of
course, the numbers doing so went into free-fall, leading to a twinge of
official concern; but a committee of inquiry is likely to advise this week
that there can be no going back. Brainy Britons may master several
tongues; the others will continue to converse with the rest of mankind in
God's own language, English.

The advantages of being able to speak more than one tongue are so obvious
that they scarcely need spelling out. Despite globalisation, not everyone
everywhere yet speaks English, so fluency in a second language would
enable monoglot Britons to talk to many more people than they can at
present. They could conduct business with fewer misunderstandings. They
would have fewer surprises in restaurants when they discovered they had
inadvertently ordered brains in black butter or a portion of potted
intestine. When confused on holiday they would understand what was meant
by the syndicat d'initiative (tourist office), the Krankenhaus (hospital)
or, most mysteriously, the [vokzal] (or Vauxhall, railway station).

Unfortunately, however, forcing children to learn a language does not
ensure success. If you doubt this, just stop a passer-by in Japan, where
English is universally taught, and in that language ask the way. Moreover,
a mastery of languages is not the only accomplishment that every child
might like to have when leaving school, or even the only one that society
might like to bestow upon those it tries to educate. Physics and chemistry
are similarly going out of fashion in Britain, and who is to gainsay the
value of knowing the laws of thermodynamics and the place of polonium in
the periodic table? A little knowledge of history would be enormously
beneficial, especially to would-be politicians who believe they can sort
out Afghanistan or the Middle East with a simple invasion or two. Others
would benefit hugely if they left school able to carry out some basic
plumbing, or to fix their computer, or merely to fill in a tax return or
benefits form. And then there are the more traditional attributes of a
decent education, such as judgment, manners, elementary morals, the
ability to get on with other people, the capacity to recite from memory a
small anthology of English verse, and the ability to think and to express
oneselfin English, for a start. Some might add a respectable grounding in
Latin and Greek, a stern respect for the injunction never to play a cross
bat to a straight ball at cricket, and the ability to flick an ink pellet
of well-judged saturation.

Yes, the British should learn languages, and they are easier to acquire
when young. But be realistic. Make knowledge of at least one foreign
tongue mandatory for university and be ready to change policy if Chinese
starts sweeping the world.



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